Have you ever had the feeling like you were the most inexperienced person in the room. Like you have no idea what to do, how to do it, or if you should somehow already know how? That’s what it is like starting out in engineering. You jump into it feeling ready to join the industry. Pumped up and bringing in your newly acquired knowledge from college. Paid for and officially stamped. Hmmm.
Before I get to deep into this, let me just make a point to say that I am speaking from my perspective. I haven’t really discussed this with anyone and haven’t heard people talking about it. So, is a case study.
Interning is Power
As an intern, I gained more experience than I give credit. I grew accustomed to a professional environment, learned the lingo, networked, learned a ton about Energy Efficiency and Government mandates. Little did I know, that this internship made me into the worker I am today. I LOVE excel. Why? Because I spent weeks program VBA. Learned how to send emails professionally and above all, talk to people. You will learn how to become an engineer, a good engineer, in your first professionally baby steps.
The point of this blurb….well, is to basically say that I learned everything I needed to learn in my first 2 years in a professional environment. It’s everyone’s dream to be that expert in the room. But, I got to warn ya. That guy/girl didn’t get there from studying there job and never forgetting. They got all that shit from doing. We won’t be there for a long time. If we stay in our field, we will undoubtedly be considered an expert. The last 4 years have taught me one thing. I only really remember the things that were problems that work hard to find the solution too.
Finding the Solution
I have worked with dozens of engineers with years more experience than me that somehow don’t know the answers to questions. Basically, they say “hmm, haven’t seen that before”. Did you hear the keyword? –”Seen”. They are basically saying “ya, I haven’t experienced that”. But, what do the o’timers do. They start digging around for an answer.
The most fundamental thing that I have developed as an engineer is my skills at finding the answer. I have never been criticized for saying “I don’t know, let me get back to you”. NEVER. It’s common practise. Listen to the managers talking. Ask them a question that stumps them and hear what they say. I promise it is a sweet talking way of saying “I know shit about that”.
Getting Over Yourself
I somehow convinced myself that everyone else in the office knew more about everything that I haven’t experienced before. But, the last 4 years of asking the experienced folk has taught me that most people have never dealt with the things I am dealing with. I have started to change my mindset from everyone knows more than me to probably only one person in this office knows something.
“Assume you will forget everything.”
- Bookmark every available resource- I have mastered every database that we use. I have created bookmarks to every resource that has helped me find answers. I listen in meetings about who knows what. I constantly OCR documents and create indexes. If you haven’t created an index of your procedures or work documents, then I recommend reading this future article.
- Keep a Work Activity helper sheet-
I keep an excel workbook with every task I have ever worked on. Each in a separate sheet. This is designed to be a list of steps to complete the task. Short and simple. I typically update this sheet somewhere after I figure out what the process is and then again at the end with the final tidbits to accomplish this task without hiccups in the future. I have a sheet at the front of the Workbook that acts as the table of contents for the entire notebook. I just click the task I am needing. This also acts as a record for how to find resources. For example, A specific 30 year old engineering drawing is hard to find. I had to go to X specific database, and then do Y and finally (1 hr later and 2 cups of coffee) I acquired the 30 year old drawing. Well, I am not going to remember that in a year, so to the workbook. Essentially, mind download what you know about what you learned, such that you assume you will forget everything. Actually, I find this a bit therapeutic for work activities I didn’t enjoy.
- Industry Best Practices and Procedures-
This one get overlooked a lot. But, in my field for example, we have IEEE guidelines for just about every element of electrical engineering. Turns out, the basis for most of the documents that our clients use, is a conservative derivative of these industry standards. So, a quick place to find a justification for completing a technical item as you did, is easier to come by than most expect. I downloaded everyone of these that relates to my field and OCRd and indexed. When I need a source, boom, 1 sec keyword search with my Adobe index, and I have the answer (not 2 hrs of digging).
- Printouts/Cheat Sheets-
I have used common tables, lists of resources, terminology, processes, contacts, etc. I have these hung everywhere in my work space. One glance is all that I need to find an input or answer to common everyday questions. I don’t have room in my head for all that. That space in my head is reserved for crunching the information into the expected mold.
- Searchable Documents-
It is common for a technical work space to contain millions of documents. These documents can range from the 1960s to the present creations. I OCR every single one of them and build an index. Creating a resource folder with an index that searches all documents is pretty thorough, but creating subfolders with specific indexes will let you sift out a solution faster.
When I have concluded the answer isn’t anywhere in my typical hiding places or the new ones that I just learned about, start asking! I find that asking someone low on the chain is the best place to start. But, if they usually don’t have the answers, you will stop asking. Overtime, you will learn who typically knows the hard answers, who knows the common knowledge answers, and who that guy/girl is that knows the only God knows answers.
The right answer is usually one that comes with experience, not knowledge. You can make a best guess, but without competency and experience you need to know how to find the answer. A good engineer will not be afraid to make a guess in a conversation (not technical input) with a follow up credibility check of “..but, I have to verify/check with someone who knows” or “I have seen that in passing so I will need to find the document that shows it.” Repeat with me: “I will not assume everyone knows more than me about this thing, but by golly I am not afraid to check when I start spinning my wheels”. Be productive. It should not be embarrassing to not know something. When your unsure and you have reasonably spent time trying to find the answer and came up empty, be confident and not embarrassed to ask. More than likely, you will learn how to find it instead of getting your answer.
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